How David Skover saw the Beat minds of a generation restored by Mania

An interview with the author of a new biography on the creative drive behind the Beat Generation.

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Mania tells the story of the creative madness that fueled the Beat Generation, sending a group of literary renegades speedingacross the country in search of kicks, jazz, booze, sex and a Walt Whitman-inspired spiritualism hidden on the open road. This bibliographic mosaic splices together the moments that defined The Beat Generation: Lucien Carr committing an "honor" killing, Allen Ginsberg communing with Carl Solomon in an insane asylum, William Burroughs shooting his wife, the first reading of "Howl" at 6 Gallery, and the obscenity trial of Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Specifically, Mania tells the stories behind the stories, such as Jack Kerouac's need to lead a stationary life while going on speed binges to hammer out his jazz-infused travel logs. The book reaches its climax when artfully describing the composition of "Howl," interspersing the poem's beautifully obscene lines with the insane images that haunted Ginsberg.

The coauthors, Ronald K.L. Collins and David M. Skover, are the bicoastal writing team behind such books as The Death of Discourse and The Trials of Lenny Bruce. I caught up with Skover to chat about Mania and to get his take on The Beat Generation.

Do you consider the publication of On The Road and the court victory of the publication of “Howl” to be the peak of the Beat movement?

Ron Collins and I are law professors with a special expertise in free speech law. From our perspective, one of the most significant events from 1949 to 1957, the height of the Beat movement, was the First Amendment victory in the obscenity prosecution brought against Lawrence Ferlinghetti for the publication of Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem, "Howl." From that point on, poetry was never again subject to the strictures of government censorship. In that sense, the "Howl" trial victory (and that over Bill Burroughs’s Naked Lunch) further secured the freedom of Beat poets and authors to write their life experiences into literature using the vernacular and vulgarity of their times.

Jack Kerouac’s most celebrated novel, On the Road, was his quintessential statement on how life should be lived. In a real sense, the work represented the psycho-sociological epistle for the Beat movement, the origin of the modern counterculture in America.

In Mania, the struggle to get published is a central driving force for many of the writers. However, this struggle rarely appears in their published writing, which was largely nonfictional. Why do you think this was?

It is true that Jack Kerouac’s, Allen Ginsberg’s, and William Burroughs’s struggles to be published were not made patently evident on the pages of their literature and poetry. (Of course, the pain of their frustrated ambitions is apparent in their posthumously published letters to one another and to others.) But I don’t find this particularly surprising. Few young writers who strive to be famous are willing to concede to their audiences that noted publishers had not typically valued them. Any penchant to expose professional disappointments may be more characteristic of mature autobiographers, but the Beat writers were far too emotionally insecure in their early years to engage in such self-revelation.

claims that party life was essential to the Beats. Do you think their lifestyle of roaming around the country looking for kicks spoke more to readers than their literary aesthetic? In essence, were their followers more interested in how the Beats lived than their actual writing?

Although it is impossible to really know what might have inspired generations of enthusiasts to read Beat poetry and literature, I am confident in speculating that the two forces – the lifestyle lessons and the literary style – were interwoven influences. After all, the Beat writers infused their life stories into their literature, and in so doing evolved a literary style labeled “spontaneous prose” as their aesthetic. Their substance and style are inextricably interconnected and mutually reinforcing. And for most Beat readers, the old adage likely applied: “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Was there an actual Beat generation, or just a small group of literary minded friends? Were the Beat writers the voice of their generation or just literary rock stars — a group of friends who had a profound influence on the next generation of young people, the hippies?

Yes and no. The Beat writers were unquestionably among the most influential voices of the youth who gravitated toward the counter-culture of the Eisenhower and Kennedy eras, those years before the hippie counterculture fully emerged. But the “Beat generation” is as much a euphemism as the “Hippie generation.” A counterculture is “counter” because it is not representative of the entire generation of youth. Although the Beat counterculture flourished in places like New York City and San Francisco, it was not dominant in most of the country. That is not to say, however, that the Beat trope did not ultimately influence the literature, poetry, and music that the Southern and Midwestern youth eventually came to appreciate.

On page 121, you write: “Jack and Neal’s world was never the world of Joan and Carolyn’s — the creed of the ‘fraternity of undesirables’ was seldom, if ever, a compassionate or committed one. It was a world where, by and large, men were verbs and women objects.” Why did no female voices emerge out of the Beat movement?

“Jack and Neal’s world” (and Allen’s and Bill’s, too) was unquestionably male-centered, and the women with whom they consorted were never the prime movers of their destinies. However, female voices did emerge out of the Beat movement (Carolyn Cassady, Diane Di Prima, Joyce Johnson, Edie Kerouac-Parker, Joan Haverty Kerouac, among them), but only much after the time period from 1945 to 1957 that is the focus of Mania, and often in reaction to what they saw as misimpressions and mischaracterizations of their male cohorts. Perhaps the best single source on the general topic is Brenda Knight, editor, Women of the Beat Generation (Berkeley, CA: Conari Press, 1996). Other telling female narratives are listed in the extensive bibliography provided in Mania.

Check out more on  Mania: The Story of the Outraged & Outrageous Lives that Launched a Cultural Revolution at and read more by David M. Shover on his website,

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